Monday, August 30, 2010

Plover Blog Crosspost: New Steno 101 Lesson

If you're interested in steno but you don't already follow The Plover Blog, now might be a good time to start. I just posted Steno 101, Lesson Two, which wraps up the anatomy of the steno keyboard, preparing the way to learn some more advanced concepts for writing every English word in as few easily memorized strokes as possible. Lesson Three should be coming along soon, so subscribe to the Plover Blog if this sort of thing spins your beanie.

Sunday, August 29, 2010

Photo Session Outtake

On Friday, I had a photo session for a new page I want to put on my business website. Quite often, people ask me what I do, and when I tell them "I transcribe college classes and other events in realtime for Deaf and hard of hearing students and professionals" (my standard elevator-pitch boilerplate), they have a hard time picturing what that actually looks like. So I'm going to be putting together a demo page, complete with screencasts of my CART output, pictures of my setup both in my home office and onsite at various events (drawn from some of the same photos as the ones in the banner collage at the top of the blog), and eventually I even hope to have a full video signed in ASL with voice description and captions demonstrating the CART process from start to finish.

It'll be a while before I can get that last one together, but I'm hoping to have the preliminary demo page up and running in the next week or so. It would have been sooner, but right after the photo session, I saw that my laptop's power cord had spontaneously stopped working. Yes, three days before the semester. Always the way, isn't it? Fortunately there was time to get a new power cord shipped out with Monday morning delivery (in time for my Monday evening CART gig), but it put a crimp in my weekend website improvement plans. So until I get my laptop working again (I'm writing this on the tablet PC you see me holding above, with an external USB keyboard plugged into it), I'm only posting my favorite outtake from the session. See if you can spot the reason why it's not going up on the site. Hint: Look in the lower right hand corner.

Saturday, August 21, 2010

Change of Seasons

I'm sitting outside a sandwich place on the Upper West Side, waiting for it to open so I can grab some food for the trip to Boston. It was originally supposed to be a four-day gig, and I was originally supposed to leave at 2:30 am yesterday so I'd arrive in time this morning, but the Saturday job was canceled, so instead my partner and I are able to make our way down in a leisurely fashion this afternoon. We'll spend the night in the hotel, maybe have a swim in the pool, and then I'll start the gig tomorrow fresh and rested. Even though the loss of a day's work means a bit less cash in my pocket, the logistics are much more workable this way, so on balance I'm pretty pleased.

This is always an odd time of year for CART providers. School starts the week after next, and we're usually counting our pennies at this point, because summers tend to be much slower than during the school year, and because we have to save up for our next quarterly tax payment on September 15th, which is usually after we've started our academic work, but before the checks have started to come in.

This summer's actually been much better than the previous two; I had the good fortune to CART for a student who was taking a summer class, and I was able to fill in the gaps with a good amount of onsite event work for the Library and the Disabilities Network (part of the ADA anniversary celebrations), plus some remote CART here and there, and my old summer standby, transcription.

Transcription isn't very lucrative compared to CART, but it's easy, I can do it anywhere whenever I've got some free time, and I've got a great client that's sent me one interview per day nearly every weekday this summer. It's a nice supplement to my savings and the piecework I've been able to dig up. Oh, I've also finished my fourth summer of theater captioning, which I do once or twice a month. This summer's highlight was definitely A Little Night Music with the incomparable Bernadette Peters. I previewed it twice to get all the tricky Sondheimy bits just right, so counting the show I captioned, I got to see it three times in all.

Now I'm in the midst of the pre-semester rush. My own fall schedule has been fixed for a while now (and will stay that way, with any luck), but I've been getting phone calls and emails and text messages asking if I can cover this class or that class, and sadly I've got very little space left to fill. I've been able to pass on a lot of the extra work to colleagues, including two days at the United Nations, which I had a blast covering last summer; I guess they decided to hold the conference a week later this year, which meant that it overlapped the first week of the semester. It's always a good feeling to be able to help out a friend and fellow CART provider with some extra work, but it also makes me a little wistful that there aren't more hours in the day. I'm sure I only feel that way after the comparatively mellow months of summer. Check back with me after I've settled into my fall schedule and I might not be so eager to take on additional hours. This fall I'm CARTing for four students at three different schools, in subjects ranging from Architecture to Latin, plus the weekly radio show, the daily transcription work, and the theater captioning. It's a busy life, but I love it.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Captioning That Keith Wann Show Tonight

Ever wanted to see live streaming CART from the convenience of your own computer? Every Wednesday night at 8pm EST, it's as simple as going to, where I'll be live captioning That Keith Wann Show: Cultural Bridges. You can also log into the chat room and kibbitz/heckle/comment on the proceedings with other caption viewers, who run the gamut from Deaf to late deafened to hard of hearing to Hearing to CODA to interpreter to you name it! Tonight's show features interviews with Peter Cook and Arlene Malinowski: Two performers, one Deaf and one CODA. It should be great, so tune in with captioning, audio, or both!

Oh, and just in case you've never heard of the legendary Keith Wann, here's a sample of his comedy act:

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Report on SpeechTek 2010

As I mentioned over on the Plover Blog, I recently went to check out the vendor exhibit hall of SpeechTek 2010. It was quite interesting and ultimately very encouraging to get a firsthand look at what current top-of-the-line commercial speech recognition technology can and cannot do. But before I get into the details, let me back up.

Two weeks ago I had lunch with an old friend from high school, Matthew Maslanka of Maslanka Music Prep. He's a fellow freelancer who moved to New York City this February to start a music engraving business, and in only a few months he's already enjoying overwhelming success. Though the parallels might not be immediately obvious, music engraving and CART actually have a lot in common. When a composer writes down music, they don't always think about the musician who later has to play that music, often with little or no opportunity to review it beforehand. Music notation programs can make the job quicker, but they're often not able to apply the complicated and somewhat subjective rules that make sheet music legible. The engraver's job is to edit and tweak the computerized notation file so that the music is crystal clear, without squished-together phrases, rhythmic ambiguities, or impractical page breaks. As Matthew says,

Rehearsals and recording sessions can cost hundreds of dollars per minute. Confusion about any aspect of the printed page makes performers concentrate on everything but making music. Composers, conductors and performers have better things to do than worry about which side of the time signature the forward-repeat bar goes. When you choose a professional, you choose to make the best music possible in the most efficient way.

So, like me with my steno machine, Matthew uses a computer to translate a composer's thoughts into perfectly formatted print in a fraction of the time it used to take for an engraver to literally engrave copper plates for the printing press. Without computers, our jobs would be impossible. Likewise, computers are unable to replace us entirely. They're simply unable to internalize and understand the countless nuances of spoken English in my case and of musical notation in his. As with voice recognition software, the default settings in musical notation software will produce something that can be turned into a final product by a human editor, but it's not able to do so with the accuracy or finesse required to be truly useful. I asked him whether anyone tried to use the software out of the box without going through a professional engraver, and he said that some churches distributed their worship music that way, since it was fairly simple and they didn't have the budget for much else. But virtually any organization employing professional musicians were happy to pay his fees, because it saved them money to have music that was well laid out and didn't cause confusion.

Unfortunately, that's where CART and engraving diverge; because consumers of CART often aren't in a position to pay for the CART themselves, they're usually obliged to get funding from their school or workplace, and because the people paying for the service aren't the ones who use it, they tend to lower costs however they can, even if it means lowering standards as well. I'm going to revisit this topic many times over the course of this blog, but this is the crux of the current state of CART and captioning, and it's not going to be easy to resolve. Companies that hire professional musicians have a financial incentive to make sure that their employees get the best transcription available. Companies that hire Deaf or hard of hearing employees and colleges that accept Deaf/HoH students often think that it's in their financial self-interest to get away with the lowest-cost accommodation, even if that means that their employee or student isn't getting truly equal access. Why do they think this way? And how can CART providers, ASL interpreters, and consumers demonstrate to them that they're wrong, that providing equal rather than substandard access is the best way to maintain efficiency and secure the success of the entire enterprise? Appealing to the letter of the law is rarely as effective as appealing to institutional self-interest. We just have to figure out the best way to make our point.

Anyway, back to SpeechTek. There were 43 exhibitors in the hall, and only one, Autonomy, offered natural language transcription. Another one, PhoneTag, offered a combination of speech recognition transcription with human editing. A third, LumenVox, said that a voice recognition dictation program along the lines of Dragon NaturallySpeaking, the current market leader, was "coming soon". All the other companies were offering software that either recognized voice commands from a presupplied list or were able to find words or phrases of, ideally, 6 to 8 phonemes apiece, such as "I'm not happy" or "speak with your supervisor" from audio recordings of phone calls. I had the pleasure of speaking with representatives from a number of these companies, and all of them assured me that speaker-independent natural language transcription was not even close to being on the horizon.

The closest contender, Autonomy, whose software is reputedly used by top governmental agencies, offered a demo of its software transcribing BBC news in near-realtime (a delay of about 20 minutes, if I remember correctly.) Sadly, this demo isn't available to the general public, but I watched it for quite a while, first with the sound off, then turning it on, and while it was vastly better than YouTube's autocaptioning, it was still considerably below an acceptable accuracy threshold. Even with broadcast quality audio and the crisp, clear diction that BBC commentators are famous for, the profusion of mistranscriptions and semantic red herrings severely compromised the quality of the caption feed. For example, at one point the captioning randomly inserted the word "Stalin" into an otherwise innocuous sentence about a London schoolteacher. I was listening to the audio, and I'm quite sure that nothing even resembling "Stalin" had been said, but it's just not possible to predict what a computer is going to make out of any given audio snippet. This is the "black box" problem I described in Part Six of What is Steno Good For, over on the Plover Blog. When speech recognition works, it works, but when it fails, it has no ability to recognize or correct that failure, because the algorithms used to translate audio into text are not transparent.

I asked a representative from one of the phoneme-sifting companies how his software worked. He said that if you wanted to find a word or phrase in a large amount of audio, you could either dial the accuracy down so that it gave you a number of false positives to sift through, or you could dial it way up, which meant that the program was less likely to waste your time with false hits, but the probability that it would miss the phrase you were looking for was greatly increased. Setting it somewhere in the middle split the difference, but that meant you potentially had to deal with both false positives and missed hits. I asked him: If you had a person who pronounced a word in a particularly unique or characteristic way, could you search for that voice pattern specifically, rather than the normalized, averaged voice pattern of their Standard American English corpus? He said that they had plugins for several different dialects, but that individual voice patterns were not accessible in that way, so you couldn't just make up custom voice searches for particular individuals.

The most excited representative I talked to demonstrated how he was able to take the software underpinning his company's automated voice recognition engine and make it work with text messages rather than phone calls, which customers were thrilled about, and which resulted in increased accuracy across the board. That shouldn't be surprising, and given that nearly all of my peers prefer transacting business over the web or via text message rather than speaking either to a customer service representative or a phone robot, I'm interested to see where the voice recognition industry will be in a few years, since, going by SpeechTek at least, the majority of applications seemed to be focused on handling commercial phone interactions.

What is unquestionable is that realtime transcription for the Deaf and hard of hearing in a natural language setting without a human intermediary isn't anywhere close to viability. Voice writing using dictation software is a different matter altogether, and I'll get to that in future blog posts. But the big bugbear of stenography, that human transcription will soon be entirely replaced by software, can be conclusively put aside. The question remains whether highly trained and well-paid CART providers will be able to hold out against a general push towards lower-cost voice writers with less training, and that goes back to the discussion of standards set by direct consumers versus standards set by the ones who are obliged to pay for something they don't use themselves. I've got a lot more to say on the subject, but I'm interested to hear your thoughts. CART providers: Do you wake up from nightmares of speech recognition stealing your livelihood? CART consumers: Have you ever worked with a respeaker, CapTel/CaptionMic operator, or other voice recognition system? How do you feel about the current state of voice writing compared to CART?

Monday, August 16, 2010

Gigging Versus Self-Scheduling

I originally wrote this article on spec for FreelanceSwitch, a great blog for freelancers and entrepreneurs. They turned it down, but I thought some people might find it interesting, so I'm posting it here.

The two most popular reasons to go freelance always seem to be: "Getting to be my own boss" and "Getting to set my own schedule". What if you could keep the first one but not the second? Would it still be worth it to you? Some professions, like web design and copywriting, are almost 100% self-scheduled. Work is commissioned, a deadline is set, and everything from start to finish is orchestrated by the freelancer. Of course they check in with clients from time to time to get feedback during the process, but those conversations frequently happen over email, and even when phone or face-to-face meetings are requested, the freelancer usually gets to say when and where.

Gigging is the other side of the coin. The people who do it have as much autonomy as their self-scheduled colleagues, but they get paid to do their thing in realtime, at their client's convenience. Some professions can go either way: A 100% self-scheduled musician spends all their time in their studio, writing and recording songs and depending on record sales to make a living; a 100% gigging musician spends all their time performing, depending on revenues from concert tickets instead. Similarly, a 100% self-scheduled translator works online, downloading documents or audio and uploading translated versions within a certain time frame; a 100% gigging translator interprets for their clients on the spot, as each word is spoken, whether it's in person or online.

Of course, many freelancers do a little of both rather than veering all the way to one side or the other, and most jobs that involve gigging also have offline components, such as skills development, marketing, or post-project analysis. I spend most of my time in college classrooms, transcribing lectures and seminars for Deaf students at up to 225 words per minute. It's not easy, but it's more interesting and pays far better than the transcription work I rely on during summer vacation, when it's just me, my steno machine, and all the time in the world. Still, every night when I come home from a day of feverish realtiming, I have to sit down, clean up all the transcripts I produced, and send them off for my clients to study from. Then I analyze mistakes made on the job that day and either change my steno dictionary or put in some practice on my machine to make sure they don't happen again. Even though that time is off the clock, it's a vital part of the job.

Gigging can have considerable financial and personal advantages. Because the job involves showing up at a particular hour -- either physically or virtually -- and doing something for the client's instant gratification, they're often willing to pay more for that immediacy than they would for the same work product delivered a few days later. The risk, of course, is that one careless slip-up or off day can do serious damage to your reputation. On the other hand, gigging freelancers get to enjoy a flow state leavened with a heavy dose of adrenaline, which is an experience I recommend to all sensation seekers. There are also more prosaic benefits, such as an incentive to get out of the house and the ability to interact with clients in a more immediate and engaging way.

Even the apparent disadvantage of having to set aside blocks of free time to accommodate certain gigs can do wonders for efficiency. During the summer, when my time is entirely my own, I find myself dragging my feet and taking longer to complete my transcription work than it really warrants. During the year, when I've got to get all my scutwork done during two-hour breaks between classes, I find myself able to break projects into digestible pieces and get them done before running off to my next scheduled gig. The less time I have to myself, the more careful I am with it, and the less I take it for granted.

Even if your profession doesn't normally lend itself to a gigging mentality, there are plenty of ways to work a little performative realtime action into your day. Some software companies have already done this by implementing pair programming, in which one coder essentially writes on the spot while their partner critiques their work as it happens. It can have benefits even for the purest of self-scheduled freelancers. If clients seem underwhelmed when you email them an unadorned design package, consider offering to come in and do an onsite presentation, highlighting the best parts of your work while taking questions from the crowd.

Even if your favorite part of the job is being able to hide behind your monitor, working in your sweatpants while everyone else is sleeping, it pays now and then to do something dazzlingly spontaneous. Start a podcast or screencast series and learn how to talk off the cuff about what you do. When you're writing an article, think about what changes you'd make if it had to be spoken aloud. When all else fails, pretend that someone's looking over your shoulder, silently judging each brilliant brushstroke or slackjawed game of Bubble Spinner. It never hurts to stay on your toes.

StenoKnight Blog Services

Yep, it's me, Mirabai Knight, Certified CART Provider, sole proprietor of StenoKnight CART Services. I've been in business providing realtime captioning for Deaf and hard of hearing students and professionals for over three years now. I've had a website for nearly that long, a Twitter account since the beginning of last summer, and a blog for Plover, the open source steno program I'm currently developing, active since 2008. Why start yet another internet outlet, along with the Facebook page and the LinkedIn profile and all the other mandatory outposts any business owner's obliged to plant their flag on these days?

Well, because I've got more to say than I can say in 140 characters, and I prefer a straight-up public blog format to say it in. In this blog, I plan to talk about my daily life as a CART provider in New York City: How I find and manage the work I do, communicate with my clients and the Deaf/hard of hearing community, promote my business, manage my steno dictionary, learn ASL, and keep an eye on my money. CART is my dream career, a way to be a perpetual student and a fly on the wall in a variety of fascinating settings. It's also a seasonal job with no benefits, no hand-holding, and no guaranteed schedule from semester to semester. I've managed to support myself and my partner for three years now in one of the most expensive cities in the world, but it's taken a lot of work, luck, and strategy. I'll talk about where I see things heading in the future, both for myself and for my fellow CART providers, and I'll offer some advice to steno students and court reporters interested in going into CART. I'll also probably geek out about the various gadgets and web apps I use in the course of my day, and offer opinions on plenty of other peripherally related topics, such as how to lug a 26-pound bag up three flights of subway stairs and how coworking saved my home life. Stay tuned!